Punctuation Marks & Symbols: The Comma and the Hashtag

by Sara Rozenberg

Published at 2013-11-06

I wanted to write about punctuation marks and symbols because I’m fascinated by their use. When used correctly — that is, according to style guides like Chicago or APA — they can turn an otherwise awkward or convoluted sentence into a concise, clean line that brings out meaning and strengthens tone (among other things).

The Comma

One of my favourite examples of how a tiny punctuation mark can bring a sentence together is in the use of a comma to set off introductory participial phrases. For instance, and without getting too technical, it’s a simple comma that lends more meaning and connects the two phrases in the following line: Located in the city, the school presented a number of opportunities.

But punctuation also has the ability to set a tone and to be used in creative ways that distinguish one author’s voice from another. Creative writers can use punctuation in interesting ways that move away from stylistic conventions and add subtle meanings that can be profound.

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The Hashtag

Of course, a lot has been written about the history and correctness of using punctuation marks and symbols in certain ways, and lately, perhaps the most popular symbol has been the hashtag, also known as the hash mark, number sign, pound, and octothorpe. Perhaps this explains why so many articles popped up around the hashtag following the recent publication of Keith Houston’s Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks.

According to Houston, the hashtag has its roots in the Latin abbreviation “lb,” which we still use when referring to pounds, the units of measurement. This abbreviation came about in the fourteenth century, and, as you might expect, evolved into what we now know as the number sign through handwriting (despite being set as its own character by printers).  

Where did the term “octothorpe” come from? This was apparently coined by telephone engineers as a practical joke in the 1960s. Interestingly, our use of the term “pound” to refer to the “pound key” on a touch-tone key pad has its origins precisely in this history.

And as for using the hashtag on Twitter? While I won’t offer a historical explanation, it seems this old symbol has popped up once again, moving through the technological history of communication, from its handwritten origins as a unit of measurement, to its use in linking messages, ideas, and people.  Which brings me back to punctuation and how fascinating it is, in all its transformations, functions, and possibilities.

For another view on commas, read our blog from the archives.